The LIFE Belgian Nature Integrated Project (LIFE BNIP) started on December 2015 and runs until December 2023. The second project phase (2018 – 2019) has been successfully concluded and many project milestones have been realised. This article gives an overview of the accomplishments of the second project phase of LIFE BNIP, clustered into 7 themes.
LIFE BNIP stands for LIFE Belgian Nature Integrated Project. The LIFE BNIP project is carried out in the Belgian part of the North Sea (Federal) and the Flemish and Walloon regions by seven partners: Nature and Forests of the Flemish government, Direction générale de l’Agriculture, des Ressources naturelles et de l’Environnement, Federale overheidsdienst Gezondheid, voedselveiligheid en Leefmilieu / marine environment, Natuurinvest, Natuurpunt Beheer vzw, Natagora asbl and Natagriwal asbl.
LIFE BNIP is a strategic project which helps to reach the goals of Natura 2000 and the European Nature Conservation Goals.
The overall project objective of LIFE BNIP is to contribute to the implementation of the Prioritized Action Framework (PAF) 2014-2020 with approaches and targets for Natura 2000. To achieve this objective, a substantial improvement should be realised in the field of governance, capacity building, knowledge, implementation and appropriate financing instruments. Therefore, the project has 7 thematic objectives:
- improve Natura 2000 governance
- drafting management plans and action plans both for species and habitats
- capacity building
- communication towards stakeholders
- creating technical instruments and tools
- implementation projects with demonstration value
- monitoring including a socio-economic impact assessment of the project actions
A threefold strategy has been set up to realise this.
The Flemish Natura 2000 programme is being implemented, including the development of 10 species protection programmes which are being realised by Nature and Forests and stakeholders. Existing management plans have been further screened on EU habitats. All planned and realised measures of these species protection programmes and strategic management plans are now being managed in a geodatabase developed by LIFE. Mainstreaming of Natura 2000 policy is realised by liaising with other departments. For example, a habitat defragmentation agenda is being put in place in collaboration with the Agency for Traffic and Road infrastructure while performing eco-hydrological studies requires a close collaboration with (local) water management companies.
In the Walloon region major steps were taken: 18 habitat and 5 species action plans have been developed and approved. Together with the management plans these will be the backbone of the future Natura 2000 implementation policy: these plans provide guidance to which restoration actions should be taken to achieve the Natura 2000 goals. The next step is to carry out these plans in pilot sites (phase 3). Simultanously, a database will be created. Thanks to LIFE BNIP additional surveys and necessary studies have been carried out to draft these action plans. Natagriwal safeguards the link between these action plans and the agri-environmental schemes.
Thanks to LIFE BNIP support, site specific site coalitions with local stakeholders have been organised in Flanders. This facilitated the implementation of the Natura 2000 objectives at a local level. Stakeholders were invited to participate during network days in 2019 and different information channels have been developed such as a website, short videos and brochures. This will be further developed in the third and final phase. In the Walloon region collaboration with stakeholders and other authorities was established while drafting the management plans in 18 pilot sites. Stakeholders also provided input in the action plans. An interesting collaboration with ADEPS (Walloon sport administration) has been set up: during hikes and runs Natura 2000 is being promoted. The stakeholder analysis is being finalised regarding the North sea and a communication campaign will be realised in the third phase. Last but not least, the federal authority is meeting stakeholders and administrations such as the province of West-Vlaanderen. This is essential for a further fruitful cooperation and implementation of Natura 2000 goals in the North sea.
The steering committee proves to be a very valuable platform for exchanging information among partners and regions. Not only technical and administrative issues are discussed but also how certain objectives can be realised. Thanks to the LIFE BNIP several transregional collaborations have been set up such as the implementation of the species action plan on Montagu’s harrier or the breeding programme of the natterjack toad. During the second phase several meetings took place with the German and Dutch LIFE IP. In October 2019 a platform meeting about ‘Natura 2000’ governance was organised by LIFE BNIP, representing all 15 ongoing LIFE IP nature projects. The outcome of this meeting? More exchange is very welcome and it is essential that administrations governing complementary funding should be partner of an IP.
In addition, interregional consultations and common activities aim to share visions and experiences on communication to be taken up by the Project Steering Committee. The www.life-bnip.be website is online and acts as a platform for exchanging experiences and knowledge between the regions and to inform stakeholders. The project team organises workshops between the regions on various topics such as communication and monitoring, as well as an interregional workshop regarding the cooperation and exploration for synergies on the protection of the Montagu’s harrier. The LIFE BNIP created an important interface between the regions (also DE and FR regions) for further active implementation of Natura 2000 goals. The main reason for this active collaboration is that IPs operate at the policy – implementation level.
For the very first time in the LIFE programme, pilot projects have been awarded to third parties. Eight projects in total have been selected for a total budget of 100,000 euro. Seven of these projects have been finalised with great success, one project received a project extension of one year. This new type of action in the LIFE programme has been evaluated as an action of high added value and it is highly recommended to include this in the next LIFE programme as well.
Last but not least, the LIFE BNIP aims to create a leverage effect to mobilise complementary funding to achieve the PAF objectives. Until now, approximately 192 million euro has been identified as being used to implement the PAF in the frame of LIFE BNIP.
In general the LIFE BNIP is implementing the threefold strategy as planned.
In Flanders the Natura 2000 programme is put in place and provides the backbone for implementing Natura 2000 objectives in Flanders. Within this programme, 10 species action plans have been developed and are currently partially implemented with the complementary actions. A Walloon steering committee has been created for the IP’s activities management and decision making. This committee gathers public service representatives (SPW/DGO3), the co-beneficiary Natagora and Natagriwal. Simultaneously with the development of the Walloon species and habitat action plans and management plans processes, a governance model is being developed at a more programmatic level, allowing to further implement the Walloon Natura 2000 network. The Federal project team for coordination of marine Natura 2000 programme is in place and ensures the relation with the implementation processes of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) and the Marine Spatial Plan.
In the Flemish region, 10 species protection programmes have been approved by the minister and 3 are being developed. These species protection programmes provide a legal basis to take specific measures in the field. In addition, 4 defragmentation agendas (one per year) have been developed in order to connect species’ habitats. In the Walloon region 6 action plans for species and 16 action plans for habitats have been developed. These dynamic action plans focus on the regional improvement of the status of habitat types and species and define the restoration, management or legal measures to be taken, on which scale/in which locations, with which associated costs and possible socio-economic impact. For some species, these action plans take the shape of turnkey projects. These steps require, for some habitats and species, the results of surveys preparatory studies. Most of these studies have been finalised (6 out of 8 studies) and the remaining studies are in their final stages.
In the Flemish region, strategic management plans have been prepared. Approximately 14,300 out of 15,000 ha of site management plans have been screened. This screening will partially fill in the gaps and needs to achieve the nature conservation objectives. In Wallonia, the development of management plans for each Natura 2000 site is based on an approved template and a total of 101 management plans are finalised. Another 24 are being drafted. The management plans are designed as a dynamic tool, using a validated versioning process. The management plans will need to include the necessary resources and information to initiate discussions on the future management of the sites and to suggest improvements from existing situation.
Capacity building creates greater knowledge and stakeholder involvement. The project beneficiaries share their visions, knowledge and experiences on capacity building in the Project Steering Committee and through relevant events.
In Flanders, Natuurinvest organises the internal capacity building of Nature and Forests with a programme based on a training matrix that has been developed to identify the needs and gaps in training. So far, 211 people have been trained. For the external capacity building of stakeholders and actors, the needs of the stakeholders have been identified and 81 trainings took place, as well as 3 public conferences. Several tools have been developed or updated, for instance www.ecopedia.be.
In the Walloon region, internal capacity building took place by organising 7 trainings for approximately 200 people. Several workshops on external capacity building activities were organised and the web platform is regularly updated.
Communication is key for all beneficiaries to raise awareness on the values of Natura 2000 for society and on the conservation measures to be carried out. It involves both internal and external communication towards stakeholders and actors at all levels: decision-makers, administrations, owners, managers, NGOs… Communication to the greater public is a secondary objective.
In Flanders an internal communication plan was developed by Nature and Forests, which was updated during the second project phase. Several communication tools are in place including the website www.natura2000.vlaanderen.be, the ‘Europese Natuurdoelen’ newsletter and several short films. A specific set of eigth information sheets (‘kompasnaalden’) has been developed and distributed among stakeholders to inform them about Natura 2000.
In the Walloon region a communication plan has been developed. A dedicated LIFE IP webpage has been created, various medias used (e.g. YouTube, newsletters), three public events were organised, and five TV spots have been developed and broadcasted.
With regards to the Belgian part of the North Sea, a communication strategy is being developed to improve communication and awareness.
One of the major bottlenecks in managing the Natura 2000 network is the lack of data or incompatible databases. In response, the LIFE BNIP co-creates and improves tools and databases for the follow-up of the Natura 2000 implementation, the site management and the reporting on the status of habitats and species. The data infrastructure is in place in Flanders and a new strategy is being developed in the Walloon region. In Flanders a geo-database system for follow-up of implementation has been developed: a GIS-related accounting system of goals and realisations. This database system includes the conservation objectives allocated in management plans, status of sites, implementation and assessment of management measures, with a link to databases developed for storing data on conservation status of habitats and species. Field data, linked to species monitoring, can easily be loaded into appropriate databases thanks to the developed web application.
The database system for the monitoring and assessment of measures included in existing management plans has been purchased (CMSi) and was further developed to meet user requirements (tailor made). However, the board of directors of Nature and Forests decided to no longer invest in this system. A new system was selected in 2019 and will be procured in 2020. The data of the site management plans that are already in the system will be transferred to the new tool. This process will not be part of the BNIP.
Specific actions are planned in pilot zones with a high demonstration value to convince actors to contribute to the active implementation of Natura 2000 goals.
In Flanders a number of actions are taken in favour of species and habitats. Nature and Forests carries out very specific measures linked to five species protection programmes, while Natuurpunt restores two sites with specific habitats (heathland) and species objectives (smooth snake, European weather fish).
In the Walloon region, the implementation of the species and habitat action plans is ongoing. Natagriwal started contacting many farmers, foresters and landowners to implement measures. During phase 2 of LIFE BNIP, Natagriwal has been active with tools to canvass contacts with farmers in order to target those susceptible to participate to the objectives of the LIFE BNIP. Firstly, agreements are concluded and permits requested. Depending on the type of measures, funding from the EAFRD or regional funding (RDP) is requested.
To identify the appropriate approaches and measures to achieve the Nature Conservation Objectives on a regional level and to support the process of European reporting, we need to:
- enhance scientific knowledge on habitats and species distribution and status
- conduct studies on the impact of threats, and on socio- economic and legal aspects
Several scientific studies and monitoring were initiated in consultation with the regional nature research institutes and external experts during the first phase. In the second phase these studies were elaborated. In Flanders, five ecohydrological studies have been procured at five different locations to identify appropriate restoration and management measures. Three studies have been completed and two are currently in progress. In addition, a hydrological survey has been set up at various other locations. An impact monitoring of project actions is also ongoing, the first results are already available.
A methodology to assess the socio-economic impact (SEIA) on the restoration of ecosystems is currently being developed. This methodology will help LIFE project managers and subcontractors to carry out a more standardised SEIA in Belgium.
Copyright of the pictures used in this article:
- header image: Piet Munsterman
- title image 1: Martin Mollet
- title image 2: Dirk Hilbers